The pond was stagnant, sickly. Globs of yellow foam floated on the surface, while cattails lay flat on the ground along the water’s edge, as though expired from the effort of trying to crawl free of the horrible scum.
“Betcha five bucks you won’t stick your foot in,” said Brandon Styles to his new friend Jarvis.
The two of them had happened upon the sallow watering hole while taking a late afternoon hike through the woods behind Brandon’s new house—the latest in a long string of rent-to-owns. Brandon never took the “own” part too seriously though; unlike the unfortunate cattails before him, his mother had trouble putting down roots.
Jarvis looked disgusted. “Five bucks? You crazy? Maybe for fifty…”
“What’s the matter? Chicken?”
Jarvis rolled his eyes. “As if you’d do it for five bucks.”
Jarvis was tall and lanky and played bantam hockey as a “stay at home” defenseman, which apparently meant that he stayed close to his goalie rather than pitching in with the forwards offensively. Brandon couldn’t play hockey himself; he was too small and frail.
He could, however, talk himself into doing things that most other boys would only scoff at.
“For five bucks? I totally would. It’s just water.” If there was one thing that moving around a lot had taught Brandon, it was that following through on dares was a quick and easy way to earn respect from new friends.
Wasting no time at all, Jarvis produced his wallet and fished out a five-spot. “All right, let’s see it.”
Brandon knelt to untie his shoe, the horrible stench of the water becoming that much more pronounced. The scummy surface was strangely lacking in insects. He peeled off his sock and inched his way forward.
“Warm,” he said a moment later, submerged up to the ankle.
“That’s frickin’ gross, man,” Jarvis said, looking away. “There’s something wrong with you.”
Brandon laughed, even though he didn’t really feel like laughing at all. A substance that looked an awful lot like grease had begun to pool around his foot.
“Seriously, dude,” Jarvis went on. “Five bucks won’t buy you a new foot.” He shook his head. “Here, take it.”
Brandon removed himself from the toxic liquid and dried his foot with a sock he no longer had any intention of keeping. He balled it up, tossed it into the woods, and slipped his shoe on over his bare foot, doing his best to ignore the fact that his toes had begun to tingle. He glanced back at the pond and saw a faint metallic sheen that he hadn’t previously observed. For some reason, it made him think of Chernobyl. He said as much, to which Jarvis replied, “Cher…what?”
Brandon shook his head. “Never mind. C’mon, let’s get outta here.”
The two of them parted ways just before supper, with Brandon returning home to cook himself a meal of grilled cheese and microwaved basmati rice. His mother’s waitressing shift ended at ten-thirty, so he wouldn’t see her till closer to eleven. They always watched the eleven o’clock news together.
The tingling sensation in his toes remained throughout the evening but since there wasn’t any pain or discoloration to go with it, he tried not to worry. They didn’t have cable or internet, so there wasn’t a whole lot to do around the house other than sit at the kitchen table and work on jigsaw puzzles or drawings. As usual, Brandon opted for pencils.
He used to draw mostly cars and caricatures and science-fictional battlefields with aliens and ray guns galore, but lately—since the move—he’d become somewhat obsessed with sketching fantastic forest creatures like elves and centaurs. Why this was, he couldn’t say, although he suspected it had something to do with the proximity of the woods to his house and a general need for escapism.
The being that took shape on the page today, however, was neither an elf nor centaur, but rather something with sickly yellow eyes and overgrown hands and hairy skin that bore a faintly metallic sheen.
By the time the sketch was finished, Brandon could hardly remember having drawn it at all. It was as though he’d been in a trance, his pencil moving of its own accord, like those automatic writers who claimed to channel spirits. Brandon glanced at the window and found the moon staring in at him from a tar-black sky. Night had fallen without him noticing. It was almost eleven o’clock. The realization gave him chills, and it wasn’t until he had torn the page from the notebook and burned it up in an ashtray that he finally began to feel better.
His mother arrived home a few minutes later and immediately reminded him to please not burn things in the house. She also asked if he’d eaten anything other than chips for dinner. When Brandon said yes, she seemed somewhat placated. She grabbed a yogurt from the fridge and joined Brandon on the couch. The news was about to start.
“How’d it go tonight?” Brandon asked. “Make lots on tips?” Considering the cut of her blouse, it was hard to imagine that she hadn’t.
“Some,” she said.
“But you still like it, right? You’re gonna stay there?”
A pause. “I don’t know, Bran. I just don’t know.”
Brandon felt a familiar twist inside his stomach. It always started with an, I don’t know, Bran.
“What happened?” he asked. “Somebody harass you?” He wasn’t oblivious to the fact that his mom was a looker; nor was he completely incognizant of how waitresses were treated in small town bars.
“Different town,” she said. “Same old shit.”
“So why’d we come here? Why didn’t we go to the city? You could’ve got a job in a decent restaurant instead of just another hole-in-the-wall.”
“Heck, Brandon. I hardly know the difference between a salad fork and a dessert fork. Fancy ain’t exactly my speed.”
“So you could do something else then.”
“Like what? Work retail for minimum wage? We need the tips, Bran.”
Brandon shook his head in frustration.
“Don’t worry about it,” she went on. “I’ll take care of it. I’ll work it out.”
The real problem was Brandon’s father. It didn’t matter that he was six towns behind them or that the terms of the restraining order hadn’t been broken in more than eleven months; Brandon’s mother still saw him in every leering face and felt him in every groping hand. Sometimes all it took was a predatory grin and the next thing Brandon knew, he’d be packing boxes. It didn’t need to be his father for them to run; it only needed to be someone like him. Brandon wished that he were better able to protect his mom from the kind of men that invariably gravitated towards her.
They sat in silence for a moment as the news anchor droned on about rising grain prices. “So who was it?” Brandon finally asked. “A customer?” The thought of roaming hands and vulgar remarks was enough to make him clench his teeth and wish death upon the nameless stranger.
She shook her head and lit a cigarette. “One of the kitchen guys. Jerk with two gold teeth; talks like he’s showing off trophies. Like I said, though, don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.”
“All right,” said Brandon. He sighed, and let the matter drop.
Brandon went to bed at about one o’clock and woke up just shortly after three. Both his foot and his ankle were throbbing. He got out of bed and hobbled over to his light switch.
He was thinking he must have developed a rash or something, maybe a delayed allergic response to the filthy pond water, but the truth, when he saw it, was infinitely more unsettling. Where his toenails had been were claws, each a good two inches long and as brown as tree bark. His skin, up to his ankle, had turned a strange shade of silvery-yellow and was rough to the touch, like leather. But worst of all was the smell coming off the discolored skin, a fetid combination of pond scum and decaying flesh.
Brandon teetered in place at the impossible sight, then abruptly felt sick to the point of puking. He stumbled into the bathroom just in time, retching three times before the nausea and dizziness finally passed. He wiped his mouth and thought about waking his mother, thought about going to the hospital, but then remembered the drawing he’d done earlier and he knew, deep down, that this wasn’t anything a doctor could fix with a simple prescription. And besides, they didn’t have insurance.
Unsure of what else to do, he ran some water in the tub and scrubbed the foot vigorously, applying every variety of soap and skin cleanser he could find. Afterwards, he returned to bed and stayed there until morning but he didn’t sleep. When his mother came in to wake him for school he said he was sick. He must have looked it too, for she didn’t even question him. She brought him a glass of orange juice and made him a bowl of soup and told him to lie back down and get some rest while she ran a few errands before work.
Brandon nodded dutifully but got up to get dressed the instant she was out the door. The claws proved impossible to clip, so he was forced to go shoeless on one foot. He stretched a couple of thick wool socks over it and wrapped it in a tensor bandage just in case he happened across anyone on his way. He would just tell them he’d sprained it or something.
He wasn’t sure what he was expecting to gain by returning to the pond—most likely nothing—but since that was where his problem began he figured that was where to start looking for an answer. If anything, the water looked even more toxic than it had the day before. The grease-like film had spread and the yellow foam had begun to turn white along the edges. Looking at it now, Brandon could hardly believe that he’d willingly exposed his foot to it for a mere five dollars.
“Shouldn’t go near there,” came a voice from the trees to Brandon’s left. He turned and squinted, searching for its source. When eventually he located it, he rubbed his eyes in disbelief.
“It’s a dark hole—a cursed place,” a woman said. She travelled on lavender wings no larger than those of a monarch butterfly, and though her voice was small, it somehow carried. Her hair was done up in icy blue spikes and her dress, like something from a punk rock Barbie collection, was frayed and torn in a way that made her look a little bit wild. Her eyes, however, appeared to belong to a curious child, an inquisitive soul.
He stared at her stupidly, blinking. There was no making sense of what he was seeing, no way to reconcile it with his obviously narrow view of reality but, sensible or not, blinking wasn’t making this crazy vision go away. Brandon wondered if what was affecting his foot might now be affecting his brain, allowing for hallucinations.
“What happened to your foot?” the tiny woman asked as she drew near. Brandon glanced sideways at the pond. The winged creature covered her mouth and said, “How awful for you. Does it hurt?”
Brandon shook his head. “No, but it looks pretty bad and my shoe won’t fit anymore.”
“How awful,” she said again. “You must go to the healing place.”
“Healing place?” Brandon asked.
“C’mon,” she replied, motioning for him to follow. “I’ll show you.”
She led him along a serpentine path through the trees, beneath branches of vibrant green leaves that rustled a bit at their passing, as if other—perhaps even smaller—creatures whispered and shifted amidst the foliage. Brandon watched for tiny faces or flashes of wings, but if anyone was there, the camouflage was impenetrable.
At last they came to a stream with the clearest water Brandon had ever seen. It burbled peacefully along while insects buzzed and frogs leapt after them with tongues in search of a meal. Just a few feet away, a small tame bird dipped into the stream and then quickly out again, tiny drops beading off waterproof feathers that showed every color of the rainbow. It chirped a greeting and flew away, bouncing gracefully through the air.
For a moment Brandon forgot about his foot entirely. He could hardly believe that the forest around him was the same one he’d explored just a day before. It seemed so different now, so alive.
“In there,” said his winged guide, indicating that he should unwrap his foot and bathe it in the crystal water. Brandon did so and was relieved to see that color in his skin began to return to normal almost instantly. The sharp claws retracted and dulled, becoming regular nails once more.
He offered the woman his thanks, and then realized that he hadn’t even thought to properly introduce himself. “My name’s Brandon, by the way.”
“Trianna,” she replied. “Pleased to meet you.”
As Brandon dried himself off, he asked her about the sickly pond, about why it had transformed his foot so, but she wouldn’t speak of it.
“We mustn’t name such things,” she said. “To name them gives them power. The pond is its prison and soon the waters will dry and suffocate its soul. Until then, we must all stay away.”
Brandon swallowed hard. “Guess it’s a good thing I only stuck my foot in,” he said and looked back to her, but no one was there to answer him. The winged woman had gone.
Brandon’s mother arrived home from work a few minutes late and it was immediately clear that her shift hadn’t gone well. Her eyes were red from crying and her mascara, though dry now, had clearly been running like ink.
“What happened?” Brandon asked. She shook her head, indicating that she didn’t want to talk about it. “Same guy?” Brandon asked as she took off her shoes and tossed them towards a rack that was more of a backstop than an actual resting place for footwear. Her silence was confirmation enough. “Did he touch you?”
“Not really,” she said, which Brandon assumed meant yes.
“Did you call the police?”
She shook her head. “I don’t wanna make it worse than it already is.”
“So what’d you do then, nothing?” Brandon was livid.
“I quit. Tomorrow’s my last day.”
Brandon swore. “That’s wonderful. Just wonderful.” But as fired up as he was at this anonymous gold-toothed man, he was also angry with his mother for giving up again.
“You can’t let guys like that get away with this stuff, Mom.”
“I know, Bran. I know,” she said, but wouldn’t look him in the eye.
“What’s his name?”
“Because if you won’t report him, then I will.” His mother had a strange personality quirk that only allowed her to act if things got truly desperate.
“C’mon, Bran. Just drop it, okay? It’d be my word against his, and with me being new in town, my word wouldn’t be worth spit. One more shift and it’ll be over and done with. You won’t have to worry anymore.”
“So what? We just pick up and move again? We’re supposed to be renting-to-own.”
“I know, Bran. I’m sorry. We just gotta find the right place is all. I thought this was it, but it’s not. I’m sorry.”
Brandon had heard it all before. He shook his head and left the room, and knew in his heart that there would never be a “right place.” No matter where they went, there would always be another guy with gold teeth, another version of Brandon’s father.
Brandon didn’t bother going to school the following morning. There didn’t seem any point since he wouldn’t be sticking around for much longer anyway. Instead he spent the day brooding and pacing and thinking about the magic in the woods behind the cottage.
Yesterday’s conversation with the sprite was so surreal that it seemed a dream rather than a real-life memory. The notion that he’d spent the better part of a day walking around on a mutated foot was nothing short of ludicrous.
He wondered what might have happened had he submerged himself further, say, like up to his neck. Would his whole body have become like the foot, hard and powerful? Invincible even? With a body like that, Brandon could easily take care of the jerk who’d been bothering his mother, and as long as he wore a mask to cover his face, no one would ever know that it was him. Afterwards he could take a dip in Trianna’s stream and go home, with no one being the wiser. Except for the sprite, maybe, but the odds of her exposing herself to the world in order to tell him “No” seemed pretty slim.
Without conscious awareness or approval, Brandon’s daydream had taken the shape of a plan. But could he go through with it? Sticking his foot in the pond to win a bet was one thing; submerging himself up to the neck, alone and naked in the forest, was something else entirely.
But just as his drawing of the monster seemed to induce in him a trance-like detachment, so was his journey back to the pond, fractured and hazy around the edges. He felt strangely compelled, though whether this compulsion was born of ineffable magic or pent-up frustration at the life he had been living he couldn’t say.
Twice he walked up to the sallow pond’s edge and twice he retreated before finally steeling himself and removing his clothes, starting with his socks and working his way up. The closer he got to all-out nakedness, the more he began to feel as though invisible eyes were watching him from the tree line. Eyes curious of his intentions, or perhaps just intrigued by his naked body.
By the time he had submerged his legs up to his knees—the water felt even warmer than it had before—strange faces started to appear amid the moss on the ground and the leaves in the trees. Short creatures with bark-like skin and eyes of sparkling amethyst peered out at him from behind rock piles and patches of stinging nettle, while sprites and faeries showed themselves by the dozens, some of them perched on branches, some of them darting this way and that on dragonfly wings, an electric flitter that filled the air and all but drowned out the thumping of Brandon’s heart. A horse-faced giant hung back in the shadows, slowly swaying.
Brandon slipped deeper into the pond, possessed by a feeling that those who stood by were not only watching him, but judging him as well. “I have to,” he told them. “You don’t understand.”
Grease slicked his thighs, rose up to his abdomen as he sunk in. Finally the scum was up to his chest. Just a little deeper…
A particularly large clump of the yellow-white foam began drifting his way and for a moment he felt as though he’d been buried in beach sand up to his neck and that some horrible sponge-like monster was creeping towards him, eyeless yet somehow fixed on his position. He managed to get a hold of himself and worked his way out from the silvery sludge and onto dry land again, where he lay for a moment, stunned by what he had done and sharply aware that there were countless beings looking out at his exposed manhood, which, like the rest of his body, was now tingling.
Trianna emerged from the brushes and made herself visible just long enough to shake her head in disappointment. Then she simply melted into the air. One by one, the creatures dissolved, the light in their tiny eyes fading before winking out. When at last Brandon was alone again, he pulled his clothes on over still-wet skin and headed for home, dragging his feet the entire way.
By ten at night, the change was well under way, and lest his blue jeans and t-shirt suffer the same fate as the purple duds the Incredible Hulk was so fond of wearing, Brandon had been forced to abandon his clothes entirely. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to look in the mirror while undressing though; nor, despite his needing to go quite badly, could he now bring himself to take a leak, for fear of having to touch the horrible piece of meat that hung between his legs. Just the thought of it was enough to make him feel nauseous and light-headed.
He left the house feeling torn. Part of him wanted to abandon the plan and return to the stream with all haste, but another part of him worried that whoever it was who was bothering his mother would take it to the next step—it was Brandon’s mother’s last shift, after all; he wouldn’t get another shot at her after tonight. In the end, Brandon decided on a compromise. He would simply wait out behind the restaurant and make sure his mother got out without any trouble. As long as nothing happened, he wouldn’t have to intervene.
He clung to the shadows the whole way there, slinking along like an overgrown cat on the prowl but no matter how deeply he plunged into the darkness, the exposed skin on his hands and feet, like silvery leather stretched and polished, served as a constant mirror for the light of the moon. If not for the coarse black hair that covered the rest of his body, he might well have glowed. Neighborhood dogs went insane as he passed, making stealth an impossibility.
Despite all the worrying about being seen, he ended up making to the restaurant alleyway undetected and, once there, positioned himself behind an overflowing garbage bin. Between the smell of the trash and his own rank sweat, too pungent now to be human, it was all he could do to keep his lunch down.
His mother exited the staff door less than a minute later, and was quickly followed out by a large man with his sleeves rolled up to his shoulders.
“Hold up, Liz. Lemme talk to you for a sec.”
She paused, took a deep breath, and finally turned around with hesitance. “What?”
“I’m sorry about yesterday. Really, I am. I was being an ass.”
“And the day before?” she said.
“Then, too, yeah. Honestly, if I’d known you were going to quit, I’d have left off.”
Brandon couldn’t help but notice that the guy had circled around to stand in front of his mother, effectively blocking her escape route, while at the same time remaining far enough back so as not to give the impression of being overtly aggressive. It was like someone training a dog by gradually claiming its space, by intimidating it into retreating one step at a time without it even becoming aware that it was retreating at all. Brandon’s old man couldn’t have done it any better himself.
“Most girls that come through here, they don’t mind a little dirty talk, you know? It’s like part of the job, just goes with the territory sorta thing. But that’s cool if you’re not like that. I understand.”
“I gotta go, Gary. My son’s waiting for me.”
He leaned up against the wall, his arm a prison bar blocking her. She could have ducked under it and bolted, but instead she stepped back again; such had become her nature. Her fight or flight response had become retarded by years of compound stress. Now she just froze.
“Already?” he said. “C’mon, I’m being a nice guy now. Aren’t I being a nice guy?” His voice had taken on a creepy quasi-hypnotic quality.
“Please?” she asked, but his arm remained where it was. He leaned in closer.
“One kiss,” he said. “C’mon, just one. You’ll like it, I promise.”
Brandon had seen and heard enough. He stepped out from behind the garbage and moved towards them, his muscles tense with rage. His mom saw him first and her eyes widened. She stumbled back against the brick wall behind her and made as if to scream, but no sound came out. The man began to turn, but before he could even fully turn around to look, Brandon’s huge fist collided with his brittle cheekbone. The guy recoiled, made a choking sound, but didn’t go down. Brandon hit him again, this time square in the jaw. Blood spilled. Gold teeth flew. And only then, as he dropped to his knees and looked up, did the guy finally identify who, or rather, what, had come upon him from the shadows.
“Oh, Jesus… Oh, Jesus…”
Brandon stared down at him and all at once his ability to reason, to rationalize, abandoned him completely. In its place rose a red wall of pure hatred. The fact that the guy before him had not actually physically touched his mother no longer mattered; the guy before him no longer wore the face of a stranger.
From somewhere deep inside Brandon arose a need for violence and revenge so great that he could do nothing but simply surrender to it, to let himself go and not consider the consequences. His fists became implements of retribution. Only through destruction could the world go on. He throttled the man again and again, each impact like an added dose of some tactile drug, fuelling his frenzied high.
Brandon was only vaguely aware of the fact that he’d started screaming, that the words he’d been too scared to say to his father for all those years were finally falling from his lips, a long-suppressed, misdirected stream of hatred. Somewhere along the way, he even used the word “dad.” Every memory drew a target that demanded to be struck.
So focused had he become on his single-minded task that he’d failed to remember that although his body was unrecognizable, his voice was exactly the same.
“Brandon?” said his mother, horrified. “Oh my God, Brandon?”
The sound of his own name had enough resonance to make him pause and look up momentarily, then down again at the unconscious sack he’d been pummeling.
“He’s not your father, Bran… He’s not your father.” Although the words were meant only for him, it was clear by the look in her eyes that they had affected her as well, that they had triggered a moment of clarity, an epiphany. She seemed to realize that she’d been projecting, too, seeing a face that wasn’t there, and running from it. Always running.
He stopped and stared at her, gradually growing aware that the man beneath him, mercifully, thankfully, was still alive, still breathing.
“Ambulance,” Brandon managed to croak. “Call an ambulance.”
She pulled out her cell phone “Go!” she said. “Run! Run home!” And so he did, and this time he made no effort to stick to the shadows. He ran in the open, and if anyone saw him, he didn’t know it, nor did he care.
He passed his house and continued on through the field and into the forest, worried now that the stream might not be there anymore and that he might be stuck in his current state forever.
To his relief, though, the forest creatures appeared to him once more, and permitted him, however grudgingly, to bathe himself in the healing waters of their stream, to wash himself clean of blood. They watched with judgment in their eyes, and afterwards told him he was no longer welcome in their woods. His apology fell on the deaf ears of the pair of centaurs who escorted him out.
Brandon’s mother arrived home perhaps an hour later, her eyes full of questions, but her lips still.
“Is he gonna make it?” Brandon asked.
She nodded. “Looks that way.”
“Good. That’s good. I didn’t mean…I just wanted…There was this pond…” The words were like pieces from different puzzles; they just wouldn’t fit.
“Later,” she said. “You can tell me later.” She pulled him in close and held him as he cried. In spite of everything, he ended up falling asleep like that, in her arms, a teenager reduced to the boy he once had been. He awoke a short time later, still on the couch, covered by a blanket that his mother must have placed over him before falling asleep herself on the old recliner in the corner.
Brandon rubbed his eyes, his brain feeling bruised inside his skull. Just a dream, he tried telling himself, but unlike the nightmare that fades as the morning matures, the details of what had happened in the dark of night became ever more clear. He looked down at his knuckles, seeking evidence in the form of cuts or swelling, but his skin was clean and smooth. Strangely so, in fact. Even the small scar he’d earned as a kid while learning to ride his bike was gone.
He got up and went to the window, looking out in the general direction of the pond and the forest. As tempting as it was to go out there for one last look, for one last potential brush with the impossible, he decided to stay inside, safely removed from uncertainties.
His mother shifted and shivered on the recliner, as if haunted by monsters of her own. Brandon grabbed the blanket from the couch and covered her up, doing for her as she’d done for him. In this way, they might move forward. In this way, they might move on.
Brandon finished chopping up the strawberries and began mixing together the milk, vinegar, sugar, mayo, and poppy seeds that would serve as a dressing for the salad. It was almost 6 p.m.; his mother would be home soon. She was working a breakfast and lunch shift now so it fell on Brandon to have supper ready for the both of them. He didn’t mind, though. Having a nightly mother and son meal was miles better than the old routine of just watching the late-late news.
She came in the door just as he was taking the baking dish out of the oven. She slipped out of her shoes and set them gently on the rack. Their new house was even smaller than the last one but Brandon didn’t care; all that mattered was that they’d given up renting for an actual mortgage.
“So how was it?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Oh, you know. Different town, same old crap.” But this time she said it playfully.
“City,” Brandon corrected her.
Contrary to her formerly low opinion of where she belonged, she had managed to land a job in a trendy new restaurant over on Bay Street. It wasn’t full-time yet but Brandon had taken on a paper route to cover the difference.
“Right, city. I guess that explains why there’s a subway. Whatcha making?”
“Chicken Cordon Bleu and a strawberry salad.”
She gave him a lopsided look. “You sure you’re my son?”
Brandon grinned. “The only one you got.”
They had spoken of that night just once, and somehow Brandon knew they would never speak of it again. Never mind that he sometimes worried about what had happened, and about why all these months later, he still suffered a recurring itch on the foot he’d first dipped in that scummy pond water. Was some part of the monster still inside him, he wondered, lying dormant in his genes? And if so, did it even matter? After all, Brandon’s father was in there, too, a genetic monster in its own right and one that Brandon had so far managed to keep at bay.
“How was school?” his mother asked as she shuffled through a pile of forwarded mail. “You make any new friends?”
“One,” he said. He was doing it the hard way this time around. No more stupid dares or bets. If he was going to earn the respect of his classmates, it would be for who he was, not for what he was willing to do.
“Yeah? What’s his name?”
“Chelsea,” said Brandon.
She stopped shuffling. “I see.” She looked at him for a moment. “Nice girl?”
Brandon nodded. “I might just wanna stick around here for a while, Mom.”
She smiled. “I think that can be arranged.”
© 2014 by Kurt Kirchmeier
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